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Reflexions I: The Model

February 22, 2010

While most converts to the new science argue that complexity theory is a better way of looking at virtually anything, what's unique and incredibly useful about the Cynefin Framework (CF) is that it maintains the appropriateness of disparate approaches and insists that problems or situations must first be framed with the appropriate contexts of Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Different contexts (based on diverse relationships between cause and effect) require different approaches to learning, analysis, planning and management, based on the practicality of understanding, prediction and control.

"This explains everything!" is the typical reaction I get when demonstrating. Last summer, I watched this happen again when I set up a contextualization exercise for UN Peacekeepers in an ancient square in the Italian town of Otranto. For Peacekeepers, the fallacy of Order from Chaos is built into their Security Council mandates, when in fact almost every aspect of their missions straddle the boundaries of complex and complicated.

It is a powerful epiphany but it can be painful too. Almost anyone has a particular comfort zone, which probably means that they have been denying the reality of two or three other domains.

I generally introduce the model in one of two ways. Sometimes I use client anecdotes in a contextualization exercise and gradually explain more about the differences while watching participants adjust their positions. Other times, I let the model unpack from the assumption of Order and Chaos.

The Cynefin Framework fundamentally rejects the binary paradigm of Order and Chaos. But to explain the model, I think it's really important to acknowledge how much of the world sees that world as either one or the other—and how much of the world will resist seeing four domains instead of two instead of one.

It takes less effort to force every situation into the contexts you expect—and to dismiss the failures—than to juggle multiple models and multiply our options and interpretations.

In other words, most people prefer to see the world as either fundamentally ordered (mechanical) or fundamentally unordered (organic). Either way, they tend to be biased against the alternative perspective as either dangerously chaotic or oppressively regimented.

Moreover, I assume that more people have a bias for Order than Chaos—or think that they should—regardless of what their local philosophers tell them.

Oversimplification isn't just fundamental to human nature—it's fundamental to nature. Learning takes more effort than knowledge. (Biologist Dan Brooks helped me to understand this in conversations at a 2004 complexity conference in Havana.) It's not that we living creatures are lazy, but because our resources are already over-extended. Sensing our environment is information. Reacting to our environment is learning. Repeating the reaction is called knowledge. Knowledge is more efficient than learning. However, adapting to changes in the environment requires learning.

Harking back to earlier versions of the model, the horizontal dimension represented learning and training or tacit and explicit, while today the two sides signify Unorder and Order.

I know that Dave doesn't agree with me, but I actually think that they should signify "learning" and "knowledge" in a way that makes the two terms directional poles—in a way that gives them somewhat opposite meanings.

Simple and complicated (called "known" and "knowable" for a while) emphasize what we already know—or at least believe to be true—and further investigations and analysis must either accept or falsify these premises. We assume that our assumptions are correct. On the other hand, learning is largely about what we don't know. That is, we must assume that our assumptions could be wrong, which is the predominant mode in complex and chaotic domains.

The model could be seen to progress from maximum objectivity to maximum subjectivity running counter-clockwise from Simple around to Chaotic. The transitions across domain borders are gradual except between Simple and Chaotic, which may account for the catastrophic movement noted there.

To be more philosophical about it, in the ordered domains, we live by faith. In the unordered domains, we thrive by doubt.

I’ve been grappling with the Cynefin/Cognitive Edge ideas since 1999 and my sense of interpretations, implications and applications continues to evolve in a stick-slip way as the friction of old beliefs break loose under pressure. I find that a useful understanding of the foundational model depends on making it my own, by adding personal examples and baroque embellishments—most of which are likely to abrade away under scrutiny. Last week’s San Diego course helped to bring together some fragmented thoughts. Although they remain incomplete, I’m eager for feedback . Abrade away, me hearties…

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